Zhang Yimou’s Shadow is a wash of grey; a veritable rainbow of ash and charcoal hues, occasionally punctuated by a splash of blood. This applies both to the visual aesthetic as well as the morality of the characters and narrative. At times, it watches like a black and white wuxia saga, Shakespearean in scope and scale. But while pretty and grand, and the idea of a historical epic from the director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers sounds like a great concept, Shadow falls flat and cold.
Set in feudal China, Shadow follows the kingdoms of Pei and Jing, who have a lasting, uneasy peace, a balance threatened by the actions of a few proud warriors. A young, reckless kind (Zheng Kai) rules Pei, sitting far removed and out of touch with his people. Brash Commander Ziyu (Deng Chao), and his “shadow,” a stand-in double designed to thwart his enemies and friends alike, pushes the dueling empires closer and closer to war.
The story is full of courtly melodrama, betrayal and backstabbing, intrigue and alliances, secrets and intricate political moves, and all the usual trappings. It unfolds at a deliberate, intentional pace, one that all too often drags and strains to move forward, creeping ahead inch by inch, and not in a good way. The script mistakes a molten tempo for tension and pressure, and details for character, but it lacks emotional stakes, true investment, and urgency. When it does happen, the action is inventive and innovative, but getting to the climax feels like a flat line rather than a buildup, so even in these scenes, there’s a dearth of energy or life.
Working with cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao, Zhang, ever the master craftsman, creates a lovely film. The near-black-and-white color palate is a curious choice, but a gorgeous one. Each scene is meticulously staged and framed, and the period-piece costumes are intricate and elaborate down to the smallest detail.
But Shadow loses itself in the minutiae and never delves beyond surface-level details. More concerned with hollow philosophical rantings and convoluted political machinations, there’s little in the way of personal involvement or concern. The narrative hits all the markers for courtly conspiracy and power-grabbing moves, but there’s not much to make the audience care beyond shallow plot trickery and a handsome façade.